Humming In My Universe
April 15, 2007
The first thing that strikes me every time I return to Manila from abroad, especially when I come in from Australia, is the high level of chaos that rules our lives here. The airport is still somewhat orderly, but it kinda ends there. After coming out of the NAIA or Centenial airport and hitting EDSA, one is amazed, no, shocked and depressed at how disorderly and wild the traffic is, how dirty and shabby the buildings are, how unsightly the power lines are that hang across a big portion of the sky and how undisciplined and cavalier the people are about crossing the streets and using the side walks. Are there even sidewalks? I’m not sure.
Then there are the billboards, those monstrous pictures that rape what remains of the sky and the cityscape that not even the death of a few people and a Presidential order can put an end to.
In less than two minutes, I can count what would be considered numerous and wanton traffic violations where one could lose a license in an uber orderly place like Sydney. But of course I am not in Sydney, and boy, do I know it. And what is amazing is, even while I am distressed at what I see, within two days, Sydney can already seem like a faraway place and my Manila instincts kick in and I am a ‘native son’ once again, who survives and even thrives in the craziness that is life here. I find a kind of parallel with the Disney version of Aladdin where Aladdin sings, and I paraphrase, ‘welcome to the land where your hands get cut for stealing… but hey, it’s home.’ (Italics mine).
Our first few months in Sydney were quite confusing and traumatic for my family and me. To our unaccustomed eyes, everything was just way too orderly and too much ‘by the rules’. Even just trying to get proper identification to be able to do things like rent a house, open a bank account, pass the driving test and get a driver’s license was problematic. To this Filipino who was raised in a jungle that regarded traffic signs, laws and lanes as mere ‘suggestions’, there were just too many rules.
In Australia, every ID one carries — a Philippine driver’s license, passport, credit card, etc. is assigned a corresponding number of points. In order to rent a house, for example, I needed 100 points. A passport gives you only 50 points. An overseas credit card is hit or miss. Luckily, I had friends who vouched for me and even signed my rental contracts just to get me housed initially.
You can get a feeling of alienation when you go to a government office and try to explain that the ‘Maria’ in your name is not your real name, as my wife Lydia was trying to communicate. They would not give her a driver’s license because her passport had a ‘Maria’ before her proper name ‘Lydia’, while her other ID, a US license, just had ‘Lydia’ on it. We felt like we were banging our heads against the wall trying to explain that every other Filipina has a ‘Maria’ on her birth certificate. But rules were rules. We finally found a solution by going to the Philippine Embassy and getting a letter that said Lydia and Maria Lydia are one and the same person.
Aussies are sticklers for proper identification and documentation. Every car on the road bears the name of the owner on the windshield together with the sticker of registration. Everyone carries a Medicare card. Your driver’s license is the only ID you will need to prove who you are and that is why it is issued only with meticulous scrutiny and care.
Traffic and driving are something else. The Aussie style of driving is anathema to the Filipinos’ defensive driving techniques. Aside from driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, theirs can be described as offensive driving. If you are in the wrong lane, you may very well get bumped. With a much higher density of cars in Manila, it is simply amazing how much fewer accidents we have here compared to those in Sydney. It’s because we operate not by officially set traffic rules but by intuition that we have acquired through the years which I sense has something to do with our views on personal space — our ‘singit’ and ‘makikiraan po’ mindset. In Manila, horns are tooted to let other cars know where you are. In Sydney, it is used to express expletives.
But frustrating as it is, I can’t help but admire how, especially after I got integrated into the system, things can work almost seamlessly. I can go to a doctor and not worry about bills. My son can take any public transport to and from school for free by showing his school ID. The trains (which they all laugh at for being late and chaotic) generally provide wonderful, safe and predictable rides to almost every destination. I can pay bills, including taxes, through the computer.
I recently witnessed an election in Australia, and compared to what we go through here, theirs is practically a non-event. I saw no more than 10 posters and actually met a candidate distributing his own flyers! No vehicles with loudspeakers parading around neighborhoods. No ballot-snatching, assassinations, charges and counter charges of cheating, intimidation, flying voters, etc. People are required by law to vote under pain of a fine. If you can’t vote on election day, you can vote earlier by mail.
Weeknights in Australia are lonely and quiet compared to the Philippines. Lights are out by 9 PM and the streets are quiet and abandoned, at least in the suburbs. When Aussies ask me what the Philippines is like, I tell them it’s a party place. While Aussies may drink and party hard with friends, we know how to party harder and better with friends, family and even strangers we have just met.
An interesting arena of the clash between Pinoy chaos and Aussie orderliness happens regularly at our home in Glenwood, a suburb of New South Wales. When Mio’s friends come over, they are visibly amazed at the amount of activity going on in the house.
Once, his friend Brett slept over and while Brett was having breakfast the next day, I could see him looking around and minding everything going on. There was Lydia, cooking while entertaining a Filipina friend sitting by the kitchen counter as Ananda, my grandchild was running around the house shrieking gleefully while resisting orders from Erica, her mom, to take a bath. Ala shouting from the shower asking mom to make her some longanisa and rice. Our TV set was on with no one really watching. And I was in the sala close by playing the guitar.
I laughed when I heard Brett ask Mio if it was like this everyday in our home. Mio looked at him quizzically, and asked him why he asked. Brett then said it was so ‘cool’ and ‘happy’. In his home, no one really communicated or even sat down together for breakfast. They pretty much cooked and ate on their own and left soon after for work or school.
I notice how more and more of Mio’s Aussie friends are hanging around the house and enjoying themselves. I see them less and less as strangers or ‘other people’. I can see their fondness for Mio and how at home they are in our place.
I am quite sure why we Filipinos come out among the top of surveys as one of the happiest people in the world. There are nationalities that seem to have it all but have high suicide rates and stress levels. There must be a heavy price they are paying for all that orderliness. But I am sure, we Filipinos could be even happier with a little more dedication to law and order, and adherence to systems and social programs that will benefit the greater number.
In Carolyn Myss’ book, Sacred Contracts, she describes how people’s lives are manifestations of contracts entered and signed in heaven before joining the sphere of time and space. It seems to me that the contemporary Filipino’s destiny is to become a foreigner because of the number of Filipinos now living abroad and the many more who wish to follow. Perhaps, the real purpose of the Filipino diaspora is not about surrendering our nationality or becoming less Filipino. Maybe it is for us to learn from societies that subscribe to the more straight and narrow paths, while we in turn teach them to lighten up and enjoy life the way we naturally do.
While a dose of discipline won’t hurt the Filipino spirit, a little more chaos could be good for the Aussie soul. ###